Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas Day Airline Bomber Had Al Qaeda Links?

ABC News is reporting that the terrorist who tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane to Detroit had apparently received a bomb laden pair of underwear from an al Qaeda bombmaker in Yemen.
The plot to blow up an American passenger jet over Detroit was organized and launched by al Qaeda leaders in Yemen who apparently sewed bomb materials into the suspect's underwear before sending him on his mission, federal authorities tell ABC News.

Investigators say the suspect had more than 80 grams of PETN, a compound related to nitro-glycerin used by the military. The so-called shoe bomber, Richard Reid, had only about 50 grams kin his failed attempt in 2001 to blow up a U.S.-bound jet. Yesterday's bomb failed because the detonator may have been too small or was not in "proper contact" with the explosive material, investigators told ABC News.
PETN is one of the big concerns for law enforcement since it is easily made with basic ingredients and there are videos showing exactly how these kinds of explosives can be made. It, along with TATP are two explosives that terrorists have repeatedly used to carry out their deadly attacks.

Why would a senior al Qaeda bombmaker send a guy like Mutallab on a mission like this? Well, given his background, he's from a middle class background who wouldn't likely arouse suspicions. He also had a visa to the US that was good through 2010. According to his father, he would appear to have the right religious extremist viewpoint to be a coreligionist with al Qaeda.

Officials are trying to corroborate Mutallab's story, but it's particularly worrisome that he was able to slip through security in both Nigeria and in Amsterdam for his flight on to the US. Mutallab's father was apparently concerned enough that he contacted US authorities who opened a file on his son:
Mr. Abdulmutallab’s name was not unknown to American authorities. His father, a prominent Nigerian banker, recently told officials at the United States Embassy in Nigeria that he was concerned about his son’s increasingly extremist religious views.

As a result of his father’s warning, federal authorities in Washington opened an investigative file and Mr. Abdulmutallab’s name ended up in the American intelligence community’s central repository of information on known or suspected international terrorists.

Members of Congress who were briefed Saturday by governmental officials also pointed to a Yemeni connection.

“The facts are still emerging, but there are strong suggestions of a Yemen-Al Qaeda connection and an intent to blow up the plane over U.S. airspace,” Representative Jane Harman, a California Democrat who leads the House Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence, said in a statement.
Yet, if his name ended up on the list of known or suspected international terrorists, how was he able to board the plane in the first place in Amsterdam? Well, he wasn't on the actual no-fly list:
The suspect’s name was inserted last month into the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or Tide. About 550,000 individuals are registered in the database. A subset of that is the Terrorist Screening Data Base, or T.S.D.B., which has about 400,000.

By contrast, fewer than 4,000 names from the T.S.D.B. are on the “no-fly” list, and an additional 14,000 on a “selectee” list that calls for mandatory secondary screening, an Obama administration official said. At the time Mr. Abdulmutallab’s name was recorded in the Tide database in November, the official said, “there was insufficient derogatory information available” to warrant putting him in the T.S.D.B., no-fly or selectee lists, and so he was not on any watch list when he boarded the plane bound for Detroit.

President Obama ordered a full review of the law enforcement and intelligence databases related to the no-fly list to make sure the procedures and practices still make sense, a senior administration official said Saturday.
In other words, there are concerns that while intel services are tracking a variety of people, only a few have activities that are sufficiently known to the intel services to warrant no-fly status or closer scrutiny.

It may be that we need to conduct secondary screening on all individuals on the TIDE list or on the TSDB list, precisely because we can't quite be certain of their intentions any time they get on a plane.

At the same time, Mutallab claims that he contacted the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen through an online communication, though not with Anwar al Awlaki, who happened to be linked with the Fort Hood gunman, Malik Hasan.

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